Have you ever noticed the word "maltodextrin" in the ingredient list on a package of food? It's a very common ingredient, but is it safe?
This article will explain exactly what maltodextrin is, why it's in so many foods and whether or not you should avoid it.
What is Maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a white powder used as a food additive.
It can be made from any starch, including corn, wheat, rice, potato and tapioca.
It's made through a process called hydrolysis, which uses water and enzymes or acids to cut starch molecules into smaller pieces. Short chains of sugars make up these pieces.
After hydrolysis, it's purified and spray-dried to make a powder (1).
Even though sugar molecules make up maltodextrin, it doesn't taste sweet. In fact, most people cannot taste it at all (2).
Why Use Maltodextrin?
Summary: Maltodextrin is a food additive made from any starch, typically corn or wheat.
Maltodextrin is used as an inexpensive filler to add bulk to processed foods, or as a preservative to increase a product's shelf life.
It's can also improve the texture of products (beer, for example), and serve as a replacement for sugar or fat in processed foods.
What Foods Contain Maltodextrin?
Summary: Maltodextrin adds bulk, improves texture, increases shelf life or serves as a substitute for fat or sugar in processed foods.
Many types of products may contain maltodextrin, including:
- Artificial sweeteners
- Baby food
- Breakfast cereals
- Dairy products
- Infant formula
- Instant pudding
- Margarines and butters
- Salad dressings
- Snack foods
- Sports drinks
Since maltodextrin can replace sugar or fat, manufacturers often use it in low-calorie or sugar-free products. Non-food items like livestock feed, lotions and hair care products sometimes contain maltodextrin as well.
Nutritional Value of Maltodextrin
Summary: Many foods and drinks contain maltodextrin, including artificial sweeteners, infant formula, salad dressings and sports drinks.
Maltodextrin is a carbohydrate that contains 4 calories per gram.
It does not contain any vitamins or minerals. Maltodextrin is considered a high glycemic index (GI) food, with estimates ranging from 85-136 (3, 4).
The exact GI of maltodextrin is uncertain, since the most comprehensive listing of GIs available to-date does not include maltodextrin (5).
People with diabetes should be careful when consuming foods with a high glycemic index, since they could cause blood sugar spikes.
If you're concerned about your blood sugar levels, you may want to limit foods or drinks containing maltodextrin.
Is Maltodextrin Safe?
Summary: Maltodextrin is a carbohydrate with 4 calories per gram, and no vitamins or minerals. It has a high glycemic index.
Maltodextrin is listed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) food additive.
Though it's not been shown to cause illness or disease, overeating foods containing maltodextrin may still negatively impact your health.
Regularly eating highly processed, low-fiber foods with a lot of added sugars of any sort may cause weight gain, high cholesterol and an increase risk of type 2 diabetes (6, 7 8).
Some evidence also shows that maltodextrin can change gut bacteria. This is important to note because research has shown that gut bacteria play an important role in our health.
One study found that maltodextrin can increase the number of "bad" bacteria and decrease the number of "good" bacteria in the gut. This leads to a weakened immune system and increased risk of disease. For example, maltodextrin increases the growth of E. Coli bacteria, which may have a role in causing Crohn's disease (9).
Interestingly, the researchers also found that people with Crohn's disease are more likely to have a gene essential for metabolizing (breaking down) maltodextrin (9).
This means if you're at risk for Crohn's disease or other gastrointestinal problems, you may want to limit maltodextrin in your diet.
Is Maltodextrin Okay for People with Diabetes?
As a carbohydrate, maltodextrin affects blood sugar levels.
You'll find it listed under carbohydrates on packaged foods. Maltodextrin and other refined carbohydrates have a strong effect on insulin and cholesterol levels.
People with diabetes may want to limit foods or drinks containing maltodextrin, since it increases their carbohydrate intake.
Is Maltodextrin Okay for People Who Avoid Gluten or FODMAPs?
Maltodextrin is safe for people who avoid gluten, even when it's made from wheat.
When producing maltodextrin, the protein parts (including gluten) are removed, leaving only the carbohydrate. Sometimes, however, low levels of protein may remain.
Even so, wheat-based maltodextrins are unlikely to cause harm in people with celiac disease, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) (10).
One clinical study had 30 people with celiac disease consume maltodextrin daily for 24 weeks. Control groups consumed either glucose or a placebo. The maltodextrin group reported no intestinal damage or symptoms like abdominal pain or diarrhea (11).
It's also thought to be low FODMAP, however there are some concerns that it depends on the manufacturer. For this reason it's best to avoid it during the low FODMAP diet.
Is Maltodextrin Okay for People with Wheat or Corn Allergies?
Maltodextrin should be safe for people with wheat and corn allergies.
Chemical analysis of maltodextrin has shown no detectable corn protein residues (12).
For people with wheat allergies, it's highly unlikely that maltodextrin would cause a severe allergic reaction, according to the EFSA (10).
Is Resistant Maltodextrin the Same Thing as Maltodextrin?
Summary: Maltodextrin is safe, even for people who avoid gluten and those with wheat or corn allergies. However, there is some concern for those on a low FODMAP diet so it is best to avoid it just in case. Overeating foods containing this additive may also change your gut bacteria and lead to an increase risk of disease. People with diabetes should be aware that maltodextrin can affect blood sugar levels.
"Resistant" maltodextrin is different from regular maltodextrin.
Resistant maltodextrin has undergone a chemical process that changes the bonds between the sugars, making them impossible for humans to digest. In fact, it's 90% indigestible fiber.
So, while we digest maltodextrin in a normal way, resistant maltodextrin passes through undigested.
Clinical studies have shown health benefits for users of resistant maltodextrin, including increased number of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine, and lower blood sugar, insulin and cholesterol levels (13, 14).
It also may have antitumor activity. Scientists are considering whether it may have potential for use in preventing colorectal cancer (14, 15).
Find resistant maltodextrin labeled as "digestion resistant maltodextrin," "resistant maltodextrin," "maltodextrin" or "soluble corn fiber."
Does Maltodextrin Contain GMOs?
Summary: Maltodextrin is a digestible carbohydrate, while resistant maltodextrin is an indigestible fiber. Unlike maltodextrin, resistant maltodextrin may have health benefits, like increasing beneficial gut bacteria.
Maltodextrin is often made from genetically-modified corn.
According to the FDA, GMO corn does not pose any health risk. Scientific evidence has shown that foods from genetically-engineered plants are just as safe as those from comparable non-GMO counterparts (16).
Since all ingredients in certified organic products must be GMO-free, maltodextrin in those products must be made from non-GMO corn or wheat (17).
Can Maltodextrin Help Athletes?
Summary: Maltodextrin is often made from GMO corn. However, certified organic products containing maltodextrin do not contain GMOs.
Maltodextrin is digested more quickly than other sugars, making it a useful ingredient in sports drinks and snacks.
It can help athletes fuel up on carbohydrates without feeling too full before an event.
Consuming sports drinks that contain maltodextrin or other carbohydrates can reduce muscle glycogen breakdown and improve performance when exercising for more than 45 minutes (18, 19, 20).
A combination of fructose and maltodextrin in sports drinks may be even more effective. In one study, the rate of carbohydrate breakdown from a sport drink containing both fructose and maltodextrin was about 40% higher than from a drink containing only maltodextrin (21).
This is important because the higher the rate of carbohydrate breakdown from consumed food or drink, the more muscle glycogen can be preserved. The thought is that by keeping muscle glycogen from breaking down, endurance performance will improve.
For recovery after exercise, products with a combination of maltodextrin and amino acids or proteins might be helpful. Some, but not all, studies have shown that these products promote glycogen replacement and building of muscle protein (22, 23).
Substitutes for Maltodextrin
Summary: Sports drinks or snacks containing maltodextrin can provide a quickly digestible fuel for exercise. Drinks that contain both fructose and maltodextrin might be an even better choice for endurance athletes.
It would be very rare to find maltodextrin as an ingredient in a recipe.
However, if a recipe calls for maltodextrin as a thickener, you could use pectin or guar gum as a substitute.
Interestingly, if you add maltodextrin to an oil (such as olive oil( it will turn it into a powder.
If you are looking for alternatives to processed foods or drinks that contain maltodextrin, you may want to consider products containing sugar alcohols or stevia.
Sugar alcohols like sorbitol and erythritol have fewer calories than maltodextrin and don't affect blood sugar as much. Do note that they can cause unpleasant side effects for some people, like bloating and flatulence (24).
Stevia does not have any calories and will not affect your blood sugar either. You may find it blended with maltodextrin, however, so check the ingredient list to see if a product contains both.
Stevia is also sometimes blended with dextrose, which does affect blood sugar. If you want to completely avoid maltodextrin, the easiest thing to do is choose whole, unprocessed foods.
Summary: Substitutes for maltodextrin include pectin, guar gum or certain sugar substitutes. The best way to avoid maltodextrin is to eat whole, unprocessed foods.
Maltodextrin is an additive found in a wide variety of processed foods and drinks.
It can be used as a filler, thickener, preservative or replacement for fat and sugar.
Most people should be able to eat maltodextrin without any problems. For athletes, it can actually help performance by providing a quick source of easily digestible energy.
That said, maltodextrin is usually added to heavily processed foods, which often contain little or no fiber and lots of calories and unhealthy fat.
While maltodextrin is considered safe, it's best to avoid processed foods and food additives as much as possible. Consuming real, whole foods are the best way to manage your weight and obtain optimal health.